Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Casual, welcoming... and delicious

Charming downtown spot offers homey Italian dishes

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I've been here before. Cafe Picolina was in this space more than 10 years ago, and at that time, as soon as I saw the menu, I knew who was in the kitchen. This time, I suspected who it was even before I saw the menu, and my suspicion was confirmed -- this was another resurfacing of Joe Pellegrino, who often names something after one of his daughters. In the past, it was Annabella's dipping oil; today's giveaway was the name of the restaurant, Little Maria's.

Pellegrino has been involved in a string of restaurants -- before Picolina there was the Rogue's Gallery, and after it, Tomato Pie, and later still, Pop Soda's, which closed after a truck crashed into it. The food was good in all his locations, and it is good in this one as well.

The ambiance is casual, quirky and welcoming, with varicoloured walls, painted mismatched chairs and different-coloured tablecloths. Big pots of fresh herbs line the sills of the huge windows that overlook a small sidewalk patio, and there are such charming accents as an old-fashioned stove and an equally ancient cash register. One lovely touch is the child-friendly Maria's room -- a little playroom off to the side, with books and toys.

The menu is far less extensive than in Pellegrino's previous ventures -- this is more café-cum-deli than restaurant, with everything available for takeout -- but the few specialties are solid renditions of homey Italian dishes, simply but expertly seasoned, mainly with basil, thyme, oregano and garlic. Lots of garlic.

The full name, Little Maria's Porchetta & Meatballs, pretty much says it all. The main items are mostly variations on those two themes, with meatballs predominating -- made either of a beef and pork mixture, chicken or vegetables. They're huge, coming three to a plate if ordered as an entrée. I didn't try the vegetarian version, but the others were packed with flavour and denser than most (no breadcrumb fillers, and therefore gluten-free), moistened by one of four fresh-tasting sauces: tomato-basil, rose-parmesan, arrabiatta and bolognese. The other entrée is six ounces of moist and very tasty porchetta -- i.e. roast pork, seasoned by an arugula, basil and pesto rub ($11 each, including a side).

Both the meatballs and the porchetta also come in sandwiches ($10 to $11). The relatively simple porchetta with garlic spinach was a stunner, and I also loved my half (all I could manage) of the huge Gandolfini of salami, capicolla, provolone, peppers, garlic spinach and tomatoes.

Sturdier appetites than mine might be able to finish El Porko, made of porchetta, meatballs and mozzarella, or the Sinatra of porchetta, salami, provolone, roasted peppers and garlic spinach. There are also two vegetarian fillings: the Little Maria, with portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers, arugula and tomato, and the Pauly, with spicy eggplant, arugula, tomato and roasted zucchini. Dainty appetites could probably cope with one of the Little Minis -- porchetta on little garlic bun, or a single meatball with gravy ($4 each).

One side dish is included with the entrées, or they can be ordered la carte for $5 each. I didn't get to the white beans with sweet peppers or the pasta (added after my visits), but the smashed burnt-end potatoes were delicious. The peas with onions and little chunks of salami were unexceptional but OK. There are two soups -- porchetta and bean and a du jour ($6, with garlic bread), an Italian salad ($8) and bruschettas of goat cheese with tomato or spicy eggplant with sweet peppers ($9 each). There are also flavoured oils with a basket of good, crusty breads for dipping -- our's, with a spicy eggplant flavour, was sensational ($6).

This is still a work in progress -- eventually there may be pizzas. In the meantime, two pastas, which were previously daily specials, have just been added to the permanent menu: plump three-cheese manicotti and beef cannelloni ($14 each). There will also be such new daily specials as pasta with spicy chorizo and roasted peppers, spicy eggplant and artichoke penne, and -- if you're lucky -- the excellent gnocchi slathered in a rich rosé sauce with meatballs. Also, occasionally, Italian sausage ravioli in a white wine cheese sauce.

The house-made desserts vary from day to day but there are almost always baklava, at least one pie -- a luscious crumb-topped multi-berry, in our case -- and lemony ricotta-filled cannolis, which would have been delicious if the shell had been crisp. A liquor licence has been applied for, but in the meantime, there's a large selection of sodas and teas, as well as coffee and ice cream floats.

Orders are placed at the counter, but served at table. Open 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2014 C5

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